Language and Communication

(and lack thereof)

The national language in Niger is French, but most people speak one of many unwritten tribal languages- most of the people I met spoke Zarma. I learned a few of the greetings and phrases, and by the time I left I could usually get the general gist of a conversation in Zarma even if I couldn’t participate. People appreciated that I was trying to speak their language even though I often failed miserably, and they found my attempts endlessly amusing.

Fofo 'Hello' N'goya 'Hello' (response to fofo) Anasara 'white skin' or 'stranger' I see ma Zarma chini 'I don't hear (understand) Zarma' Kala tontont 'bye bye' Kala suru 'with patience'

Fofo = Hello

N’goya = Hello (response to fofo)

Anasara = white skin or stranger

I see ma zarma chini = I don’t hear (understand) Zarma

Kala tontont = bye bye

Kala suru = with patience


Monday December 7
We went to the market yesterday and it was so much fun! It sort of smelled like Mr. Bulky’s because people had all kinds of foods and spices sitting out in big heaping piles. It was pretty cramped- some people had tables and some just sat on grass mats with their goods spread out around them, all shaded under scraps of burlap and canvas propped up by tree limbs. Eric knew a lot of the people there and they were excited to meet me but dismayed that I don’t know Zarma. Eric explained that I’ve only been here for three days and that I’m learning a little each day. Then one of the guys turned to me and said “Fofo!” and when I returned the greeting everyone laughed and cheered and shook my hand. It was a good time.

One of the biggest problems I had with the languages was that I never knew which one I should be listening for. Some would address me in French because I’m white, those that didn’t know French would speak Zarma, and those that knew a little English would jump at the chance to practice it. My French is poor enough that I need to make a conscious effort to hear it when it’s spoken, and obviously I didn’t understand much Zarma. Usually after a few failed attempts at communication I’d get Eric’s attention and he’d bridge the gap.

dalamiThis kid lived next to Eric in Tapoa- he came over to visit quite often. We never really communicated successfully– most of the time he’d come over when Eric was gone or sleeping, we’d greet each other, and then we’d just sit in the shade together. (It’s hard to tell from this picture but he’s really cute)


Conversations in Niger are very different from conversations in the States. We tend to focus on the functionality of communicating, especially when we’re speaking to strangers. The cashier at the grocery store may get a perfunctory “Hi, how are you?”, but Americans generally want to get business taken care of as quickly as possible. In Niger, the greetings may take several minutes. “How is your health? How is your family? How is your work? How is the heat? Are your chickens fat? Are your fields growing well? How is your visit? Do you like Niger? How is America?” etc.

Hand-shaking and touch are also a big part of conversations there. Most people shake hands at the beginning and end of a conversation and usually a few times in between, also. It’s not unusual there to see two men holding hands while they speak to one another, or children to walk around with their arms around each other. Handshakes also differ by region. Someone out in the bush will touch his fingertips to his chest after each handshake to show that you’re in his heart. A bartender from Ghana named Oussman had a whole snap/chest touch combination he always did, like a secret handshake for someone’s tree fort.

The language barrier was pretty substantial, but everyone in the world recognizes a genuine smile, and I found it to be the quickest way to render language differences inconsequential.

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